The Facebook generation

The Facebook film goes on release across Britain this weekend, and if US box office figures are anything to go by, it’s going to do pretty damn well. 

 You can read my interview with Ben Mezrich (author of The Social Network’s literary inspiration, The Accidental Billionaires) here. But the arrival of the film in cinemas got me thinking; Has it really been only six years since Facebook was created?

 I am undoubtedly a member of “The Facebook Generation”. I joined the site in May 2006, on the recommendation of American gap year friends. Initially i liked it, but I was also a MySpace member at the time and had no inkling of how important the site would become. Very few of my British friends were on it; it was fun, but limited. A passing craze.

Then I started university in September 2006 and suddenly everyone in my world was on it. Suddenly every party was organised on it, every morning spent studying Tagged photos. We wrote on people’s walls, we poked them. A birthday was no longer registered by text message or phone but by a generic Facebook post. Now everyone Facebooks (verb). Even my octogenarian grandpa announced recently that he had inadvertently joined.

It’s crazy how short a time it has taken for the vocabulary of Facebook to enter common usage, for the etiquette of the site to become part of normal behaviour. As a journalist, my job has been made far easier by the availability of private data, by the erosion of the personal into the public.

It’s funny, because I remember when I gained my first email address (age 12, on the school computer, under the questionable moniker of littlemisschatterbox2001) and boy did I think I was cool. But entering the email community, while exciting, wasn’t lifechanging. It became a feature of my life, but only gradually.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article marking Google’s 12th birthday. I had been surprised that the web emperor was still a preteen, so comprehensive is its involvement in our lives. But Google simply streamlined a process already in existence; it did what Lycos and Yahoo already did, but better.

You could say the same about Facebook, that it just improved the MySpace, Friendster and Friends Reunited mould.

It didn’t. Those sites were, variously, uncool, awkward, messy and limited.They were about utility, about practical pursuits; MySpace for music, Friends Reunited for high school reunions.

Facebook’s primary purpose was never to help people live more efficient or productive lives – it was the exact opposite.

Its agenda was gossip, snooping, Schadenfreude.

Facebook was from the outset geared towards replicating the best parts of social life on-screen. Not only could your internet alter-ego be a photoshopped fantasy, but you could use the site effectively to find out about friends, partners and anyone you damn well pleased.

Think back. Can you count on one hand the number of paper invitations you’ve been given this year? When was the last time you went to a party only to recognise half the guests from the dubious practice of stalking? How often have you messaged a distant acquaintance with a favour you’d probably never dare email or phone?

And even more importantly, can you believe you lived a large part of your life without being able to do those things?

There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Mark Zuckerberg (played disarmingly well by Jesse Eisenberg) comes up with the “Relationship Status” feature. It’s a stroke of genius, a lightbulb, a great scene.

But it’s also a pointed reminder of how one website can change the world.

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